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Imperial Nostalgia

[ 0 ] April 29, 2007 |

“Holy shit” doesn’t quite describe this piece in McKristol’s Quarterly Concern, wherein the author not only fails to spell Thomas Hobbes’ name correctly even once, but also dishes out exactly what one would expect from someone whose oeuvre consists of prose renditions of Rudyard Kipling poems.

Behold:

Because of and in spite of Hollywood films like The African Queen and television shows like Tarzan, tropical Africa south of the Sahara and north of the Zambezi is terra incognito for most Americans. Some cling to fragments of the “noble savage” myth advanced by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued that in an idyllic “state of nature” uncorrupted by civilization, people are innocent, happy, and brave.

Others accept the opposing myth promulgated by Thomas Hobbs [sic] that in a “State of Nature,” there are “no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worse of all, persistent fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Neither myth reflects the real tropical Africa that I saw in the 1960s while there researching three books on U.S. policy. Almost everywhere I saw poverty, corruption, and a retreat from the rudimentary rule of law established by the British and French colonial powers.

As Kempton Makamure, a political opponent of President Mugabe, wrote recently in Zimbabwe’s Financial Gazette, “It is entirely possible that conflicts within independent states in Africa have caused more privation, deaths and stalled development than the colonial rule they have replaced.”

President Kennedy and some of his Africa hands were more optimistic. Naive might be a better word. They saw themselves as heralds of freedom. Unduly critical of the European colonists, they seemed unaware that the British, for example, had ended slavery 79 years before Lincoln signed the Emaciation Proclamation. Perhaps the greatest flaw in the official U.S. perception was the failure to recognize that long before the Europeans had arrived, Africa had seethed with tribal wars and indigenous slavery. The Western traffic in human beings would not have been possible without the active participation of African slavers eager to sell Africans of other tribes to their Western counterparts. As a poignant African proverb put it, “The tears of a stranger are only water.”

Back to Hobbs [sic, unless he's actually talking about the florist, in which case I heartily apologize for the error]. If it took a thousand years for the barbarian tribes of Europe to become democratic and prosperous states, how long will it take African tribes that missed the Renaissance, Reformation, Magna Carta, and Industrial Revolution?

It’s remarkable that the Standard, as ignorant as its historical thought pieces tend to be, would actually publish this kind of childish white supremacy. The non-sequiturs about “missing” the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution make just as much sense as they did when they were breathlessly declared at 19th century ethnological societies, where deveotees of Lewis Henry Morgan wondered if the “high savages” might soon ascend to the level of barbarians.

As for the actual historical commentary here, it hardly seems worth mentioning, for example, that Britain’s abolition of slavery took place after the Royal African Company and scores of successor enterprises had robbed the continent of millions of souls over the course of more than 200 years. Anti-slavery advocates did not regard abolition and emancipation as somehow compensatory for the crimes of two centuries, and so their accomplishments cannot be credited with that sort of moral outcome. And the fact that slavery and warfare existed prior to European conquest of the planet is an irrelevant red herring (as always); Africans did not capitalize the slave trade, globalize it, and use it to generate a pernicious mythology of racial supremacy that fueled, among other things, the development of regional monocultures that demanded the complete expulsion of indigenous people (African and otherwise) from the land.

Having said that, I’ll brush past the juxtaposition of Rousseau and Hobbes — a rhetorical move usually reserved for high school term papers — and simply note that Lefever’s real point is to mourn the vacated glory of Rhodesia, whose racist settlement policies and political organization (he claims) were misunderstood by Americans who drew “false comparisons” to Jim Crow laws and the expropriation of Indian land. And since for Lafever the only alternative to Robert Mugabe’s rule is the return of gentlemanly racists like Ian Smith, the entire project of African independence must be viewed with skepticism and deep moral concern over the “preparedness” of such people for self-rule.

The whole thing is loaded with bigoted historical fantasy, topped off by a quote from Piny the Elder. That would be the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder, who died in the Pompeii eruption in 79 CE and believed that there were people in Africa who actually looked like this:

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